Does Fishing Hurt Fish?

Whether or not fish feel pain has been a subject of heated debate for decades. Catch-and-release fishing is considered inhumane and banned in Switzerland and Germany. However, releasing fish is mandatory, in most other places, including many popular fishing destinations in the US.

So, does fishing hurt fish? Recent studies have found that fish possess nociceptors, which are the receptors that sense pain. Scientists have found nociceptors across the bodies of some species, especially around the tail, fins, eyes, and nostrils. Fish can’t breathe out of the water, so they slowly and painfully suffocate and die.

Despite compelling evidence that fish feel pain, fish are still treated inhumanely, especially by the fishing industry. Read on to understand how fishing hurts fish and how to minimize the effect fishing has on the fish. 

Do Fish Feel Pain When They Get Hooked?

Do Fish Feel Pain When They Get Hooked

A study conducted by the research team at the University of Edinburg found that fish feel pain. Researchers found behavioral and physiological changes in trout after exposure to harmful substances.  

In this study, researchers tried to determine the presence of nociceptors, or pain receptors that respond to potentially damaging stimuli. Researchers found 22 nociceptors in the heads of rainbow trout that were stimulated when heated over 40 degrees Celsius and responded to mechanical pressure. 

Since the mere presence of nociceptors wasn’t enough to prove that fish feel pain, researchers injected bee venom and acetic acid into the lips of some of the trout. On the other hand, control groups were given injections of saline solution or were just held. 

The fish injected with bee venom, and acetic acid rubbed their lips on the tank walls and the gravel in the tank. They also appeared stressed and took almost three times longer to resume eating than the control groups. 

This and similar studies provide evidence that fish can feel pain and aren’t some mindless and unfeeling creatures many people believe them to be. 

Do Fish Feel Pain When They’re Suffocating?

Fish can’t breathe out water. So, when removed from their natural habitat, fish slowly suffocate and die.

Imagine how would it feel being trapped underwater, gasping for breath. Fish likely feels the same way when out of the water. For fish, suffocating on land is just as painful and terrifying as drowning is for people.

Once pulled out of the water, fish’s swim bladders may rapture because of the sudden change in pressure, and their gills often collapse. Cortisol, the hormone associated with stress, is significantly increased when fish are out of water. 

Suffocating takes a long time for some fish species. Research also showed that some species like cod and haddock can remain conscious on decks of fishing ships for two or more hours after being caught.

The prolonged suffering is made worse because most of these fish are injured while hauled out of the water. Depending on the type of fishing technique used, huge numbers of fish are crushed together as they are pulled out of the water, pierced with hooks, or stabbed as they are hauled on the deck.

Is There Any Evidence That Fish Feel Pain?

While some people find it hard to believe, the scientific community mostly agrees that fish feel pain. There’s evidence that besides feeling physical pain caused by an injury, fish can also experience psychological pain from an emotional state. 

As you probably know, pain can be physical and emotional. Some scientists believed that only higher-order primates such as humans and select species like dolphins could experience emotional pain. 

The fact that higher primates possess the neocortex, part of the brain associated with the more advanced cognitive process, was taken as proof that only higher primates are capable of experiencing emotional pain.

However, recent studies have discovered that a wide array of animals, including fish, are capable of experiencing emotional pain, despite the fact they don’t possess a neocortex. When it comes to physical pain, the presence of nociceptors shows that fish feel pain and can suffer just as much as higher primates. 

Is It Cruel to Catch and Release Fish?

The debate of whether catch-and-release fishing is humane has been raging for over a decade. 

There is no doubt that catch-and-release fishing causes pain to fish. However, fish pain isn’t the only downside of catch and release.

A caught fish has a lower chance of survival than the one who got away, even if you decide to release it. The energy spent fighting, the stress of being caught, and possible injuries obtained during handling are the factors that contribute to the higher mortality rate of caught fish. 

Following best fishing practices reduces the physical pain the fish experience while being caught and released. 

Studies have shown that hooking mortality rates are around 4-6% for lures and flies but can go up to 25% for bait-caught trout. 

Is It Okay to Engage in Fishing for Fun?

Fishing offers numerous benefits for mental and physical health. But, new research shows that recreational fishing can be a big problem, especially for threatened species.

It’s hard to imagine that your love for fishing can have a massive effect on the environment and the overall health of a fishery, but it does. You’re just a drop in a sea of recreational fishermen who are doing the same thing.

When you multiply the number of fish one angler can catch and discard in one day with millions of fishermen, you have a consequential number of caught fish. 

Marine biologists and other experts say that anglers shouldn’t feel bad about going fishing with friends just yet. But, keep in mind that individual actions pose a collective threat to certain fish species, in some places. 


Despite popular beliefs, fish feel pain. However, fish aren’t the only ones affected by fishing. Birds, turtles, and other animals suffer severe injuries after entangling in fishing nets or swallowing fishing hooks.

While catch and release mortality rates can’t be totally avoided, there are ways to decrease the hooking mortality rates by following best fishing practices. Reducing handling time and using single barbless hooks are some of the ways to reduce the fish’s physical and emotional pain when being caught.